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June 18, 2009

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David Ball

What you had to say about the Big Mac's pivotal role in publishing history was quite interesting, but I already knew about its importance to baseball research because I was alive and just about old enough to experience and appreciate it. With the fabulous research apparatus we all have at our fingertips now, it's probably become difficult to understand what a huge leap forward the Big Mac represented. It was, as you say, the first attempt to create a complete and accurate record of major league statistics.

I sense that the committee was motivated in many of its decisions by the desire to standardize scoring rules and related practices as much as possible, in order to allow people to draw valid comparisons all across the huge new database (to use a word few people knew then). They understood, of course, that there were serious normalization problems between eras, but they wanted to make cross-era comparison as valid to the extent possible. I think a number of their decisions, most notably the calculation of 1887 BA's by the usual method instead of the peculiar one actually in vogue in 1887, can be understood in the light of that purpose.

If I'm right in thinking this was their intention, it seems probable that the committee members' sense of the institutional looseness of the NA, with teams playing widely different numbers of game both overall and against common opponents, that led them to believe the NA's statistics could not be used for meaningful comparison as other league's could. Throughout baseball history, almost every teams had always played more or less exactly the same number of games against each opponent (note this was before divisional play). That was not true of the NA, and it introduced a complication into any attempt to compare its stats to those of other leagues. In fact, you couldn't even make comparisons between one NA team's players and another's. For that reason, I suspect, the NA was excluded from the main register.

Now, one or two people who lack my trusting faith in human nature and perhaps know more about the process than I do, have told me that the real reason was the NL's desire to be recognized as the first major league, coupled with the fact that the NL was represented on the committee while the NA of course was not. By any calculation, anyway, I think it's safe to say that the committee's decision was rooted in circumstances peculiar to the particular situation at the time. And whether the key consideration was completeness of information, the desire to promote standardization of records keeping or the NL's institutional self-interest, the decision certainly was not a judgment on the NA's quality of play.

Gary Ashwill

Yeah, I wondered which came first, too. I have only a vague sense of the chronology of the ICI project & the decisions of the special records committee, but the statistical record certainly took a number of years to put together. The special committee seems to have issued its decisions in 1968, which seems fairly late in the process (the encyclopedia being published in 1969). This to me suggests that the committee's decisions were made after the project was already close to completion, and they were essentially evaluating work that was already done (or not done, in the case of the NA).

Anybody with better knowledge of the details should feel free to jump in...

David Ball

I've thought about the matter of the incomplete state of NA stats in the Big Mac myself, and I see it as a chicken and egg question. Was the incomplete statistical record an unacknowledged reason for excluding the NA from ML status? Or was the statistical record left incomplete by the people doing the work because, once the decision had been made to exclude it, there was no impetus to dig out those statistics?

I don't know the answer but am inclined to favor the second choice for this reason. The NA's official records, I believe, had been lost in a warehouse fire long before, while those of the NL, AA and other later major leagues existed, but the record for all the early leagues were inaccurate and lacking particular statistical categories the editors wanted to include. So, it must have been more or less necessary to reconstitute the entire record from scratch for the early years of the NL and for the AA, UA and PL, just as though the official records had vanished as the NA's had.

That being the case, it wouldn't have added that much to the workload to do the same thing for the comparatively few games played by the NA. It is certainly true that newspaper coverage for the early '70's was not as thorough as it was even ten years later, but I don't think there was any reason why they couldn't have done the work, as a SABR committee eventually did.

Therefore, it appears the people working on the Big Mac could have completed the NA's statistical record but didn't because it had been decided to exclude the NA. That's the view that seems more plausible to me, but it's not based on any very detailed understanding of the practical obstacles faced in undertaking this great project.

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